Here Cyril was certainly bolder than the Latin theologians, but the lack of theological daring in Latin Christology has somewhat slanted McGuckin’s interpretation of Pope Leo I, whose famous Tome was read out before the assembled bishops at Chalcedon to unanimous acclaim: “Peter has spoken through Leo!” The standard Western account of that episode claims for Rome a balance of approach lacking in the more disputatious Greek theologians, who were still too besotted by the neo-Platonic speculations common in the East. McGuckin disagrees. He points out, rightly, that the bishops not only accepted Leo’s intervention as the voice of Peter but went on to say, “So also did Cyril teach.” (Cyril had died seven years before Chalcedon.) According to McGuckin, the bishops accepted Leo because, and only because, he taught the same thing as Cyril, who alone was the test for Christological orthodoxy. McGuckin also makes the much more radical claim that the decree of Chalcedon was meant as a deliberative corrective to Leo’s Tome.
This thesis will not stand up to scrutiny. The decree the Eastern bishops supported clearly represented a middle passage between the extremes of Antioch and Alexandria. Cyril had favored the term “hypostasis” to denote the union of divine and human in Jesus, while the Antiochenes preferred “person.” Chalcedon used both terms. Similarly, Cyril generally spoke of a hypostatic union “from” two natures, whereas Leo and the Antiochenes insisted on the union taking place “in” two natures—and that is the formulation Chalcedon chose. Finally, we know that the Alexandrians themselves detected these “concessions” to Antiochene theology because Cyril’s more hotheaded successors (Eutyches and Dioscorus, primarily) actively rejected the Council. That rejection soon led to the Monophysite heresy, which lives on to this day in the Coptic and Ethiopian churches.
That problem aside, John McGuckin’s Saint Cyril of Alexandria and the Christological Controversy is a book to be welcomed and recommended. Students of this difficult period will be amazed at the verve and clarity the author has brought to his study. Its erudition and speculative brilliance recall John Henry Newman’s The Arians of the Fourth Century. Even more, McGuckin has amply justified Newman’s famous observation in the Development of Doctrine that Antioch is “the very metropolis of heresy” whereas it “may almost be laid down as an historical fact that [Cyril’s] mystical interpretation and orthodoxy will stand or fall together.” ~Edward T. Oakes, S.J., First Things
By chance, I happened to pick up Fr. McGuckin’s book on Friday after experiencing the relief of passing my field examinations. I have not had the chance to get very far into it just yet, but so far this book on St. Cyril is refreshingly detailed and insightful, and full of Fr. McGuckin’s clear, powerful prose that has made his biography of St. Gregory the Theologian such a pleasure to read (even if time constraints have so far prevented me from finishing it). The extensive section of translations in the back is a wonderful asset for anyone interested in fundamental Christological works. My assessment of Fr. McGuckin’s thesis will have to wait until another time, but so far I have little reason to expect any grounds for serious criticism.
There was one small, nagging point that left me a bit perplexed as I began the book: why are terms such as Christian, Christology and European left entirely uncapitalised, whilst “Oecumene” and a few other Greek and English terms (e.g., Genos, “the Emperor,” etc.) are uncharacteristically or artificially capitalised? Is there some new fad afoot in theological writing that keeps us from capitalising the word Christian while still capitalising Judaism and even choosing to capitalise Paganism, which is often written entirely in lowercase? After all, if Christology is the doctrine about Christ, surely it makes little sense for a theologian effectively to de-emphasise Christ by writing “christology” and “christian”!
Honestly, I cannot fathom the reason for this particular grammatically incorrect (as well as inconsistent) practise. If there is some PC fad about such things out there, I would not have expected it to infiltrate St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press. Obviously, this does not detract from any of the substance of what Fr. McGuckin is writing, and it is probably not worth dwelling on for so long, but it has a somewhat jarring or puzzling effect on the unsuspecting reader. It is made all the more odd by the capitalisation of Orthodox and Novatianist–if we’re worried about reifying religious categories or attaching undue significance to these labels, why not orthodox and novatianist? I would be genuinely interested to find out if anyone knows what the thinking is behind such a strange move.
The new St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press edition of this volume on St. Cyril (originally published in 1994 by Brill) is largely free of the wimpy apologetic refrains that often end up saying, “yes, Cyril was an intolerant, obnoxious person, and it’s a real shame about Hypatia, but he had some nice theology.” I was reminded of these refrains, which hang over most Cyrilline books like a shroud, whilst reading Fr. Oakes’ review, as it is loaded with all of the usual apologies to modern readers for bothering them with something so potentially “mind-numbingly arcane” and irrelevant as Christology. (That Fr. Oakes does not, in fact, find theology mind-numbingly arcane might easily be lost on the innocent reader.)
Incidentally, I have suspected for some time that one reason why theology is regarded as poorly as it is by most modern people is that theology’s own defenders are quite embarrassed about their own discipline and seem almost to believe the charges of vain disputation and irrelevance leveled against most theologians. (Academic theologians may indeed be guilty of these charges, but it certainly does not apply to the men responsible for laying the intellectual gridwork of Christian doctrine, of whom St. Cyril was one of the foremost.)
I feel confident that I can already heartily endorse Fr. McGuckin’s book, and I would also recommend as useful reference guides the Westminster handbooks that he has either edited (on Origen) or authored (on Patristic Theology). More reflections on the book will follow once I have had a chance to review it more thoroughly.